Assessment Series #5 - Poster Sessions

The poster session is an assessment tool that has become increasingly popular in courses where the syllabus calls for extended student work on individual projects, team research, or design challenges.

Poster sessions, in which students create poster presentations to present project work that they have completed individually or in small teams, are flexible assessments which allow students to interact with each other in addition to being evaluated by their instructors. A project that culminates in a poster session can include several milestones - formative assessments that provide feedback on students' progress - on the way to the final presentation.

BME Design Expo 2004 -- image credit: COE PhotosFor these reasons, they can work as effective assessments for students at many different levels. The Department of Biomedical Engineering, for example, includes participation in a final poster session for each of their design courses, from sophomore-level to senior-level, and the teaching team of Introduction to Society's Engineering Grand Challenges recently hosted a successful poster session for their freshman-level course.

Additionally, posters provide authentic practice and assessment for students who plan to continue into engineering graduate school or industry. Conferences often include poster sessions, and so preparing posters for courses allows students to gain valuable practice in both their information design skills and their presentation skills.

Perhaps most importantly, though, instructors like the conversation, interest, and cross-talk that poster sessions help to create in their classes.

Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineerng Thatcher Root, who asks his students to create and present posters for their final project in his Energy and Sustainability elective, likes the interactive aspect of these gatherings.

"I have become a big fan of poster sessions because I think that they allow for much more communication and learning among the students," Root explains. "The students ask each other questions and discuss the details of their topics much more in front of a poster than they might if they were standing up and giving an in-class presentation."

While poster sessions often include some standard elements - for example, instructors might draft a list of required poster elements, and students might script a short talk that introduces viewers to the poster and the topic that they studied - they also allow for extended conversation and questioning.

Students presenting their posters have the opportunity to discuss more in-depth information with interested viewers than they might in a talk where time is more strictly limited. Since courses move quickly and often do not allow students to spend much time discussing their individual projects, poster sessions can open up spaces for students to talk together, learn about different projects, and become interested in each others' topics.

The Grand Challenges team, led by Electrical and Computer Engineering professor Susan Hagness, decided to host a course-wide poster session to allow students to do exactly that.

"We wanted to give the students an opportunity to see the projects in the theme-based section that they had chosen, but also to learn about the projects in different sections of the course," Hagness notes. "Logistically, a poster session seemed like the best way to make that happen. It worked out very well because it allowed the teams to cater their presentation to the interests of the viewers who were listening."

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For more information about the ideas in this article:

If you are interested in adapting your course to include a poster session, The Department of Biomedical Engineering includes extensive information about poster guidelines, design, and preparation here, on the BME 201, 301, and 402 eCOW site. The UNM Undergraduate Research & Creativity Conference also offers poster presentation guidelines and a basic rubric, adaptable to a variety of specific courses, here.